Stephanie Cissell knows that life is full of obstacles, but she doesn’t believe this should stop one for living fully. Despite experiencing a number of challenges and tragedies at a young age, she has pushed forward to become the world-traveling student she is today.
Fall 2013 Voyage Assistant Executive Dean Rita Enders describes Stephanie as “a young woman with a smile on her face at all times. She is out and about, engaged in the Semester at Sea community, the same as everyone else. Her courage to undertake a voyage such as this speaks of her outstanding spirit.”
At age 10, Stephanie and several family members were shot by a drunk man who burst into her home. Her father died, her sister and mother were seriously injured and Stephanie was left paralyzed from the waist down. Because her mother’s injuries required extensive hospitalization and rehabilitation, Stephanie and her sister had to live in foster homes until their mother was well enough to care for them.
Adapting to life in a wheelchair wasn’t easy. “Before my accident, I was a little tomboy. I played football, softball and tennis, and I was a competitive swimmer,” says Stephanie, now a senior at California Lutheran University and a resident of Ojai, California.
Stephanie adapted and persevered. She married, had two children, and worked full time, putting off college for a while. When her kids got older she decided to go back to school. She also decided that she wanted to see the world. While researching study-abroad options, she looked for a program with a passion for volunteerism, a diverse student body and handicap accessibility. Semester at Sea fit the bill and Stephanie enrolled in the Fall 2013 voyage.
Stephanie isn’t the first student with a disability on an SAS voyage and certainly not the last.
“The community spirit of SAS embraces all its members with the attitude that difference is the fabric of learning through experience,” says Dean Rita. “Having Stephanie on the Fall 2013 Voyage is opening doors of learning for her and for everyone.”
Stephanie has logged quite a few international miles on her wheelchair. Prior to this 50thanniversary voyage, she’s visited nearly a dozen countries throughout parts of Europe, the Mediterranean and as far east as Thailand, both via independent travel and study-abroad programs.
Though wheelchair-bound aboard the MV Explorer, Stephanie is quite agile. Still, life at sea is not without its complications. Everything is a process, from putting on a lifejacket, a long-sleeved shirt, a hat, and close-toed shoes while sirens sound during a lifeboat drill to maneuvering through crowds of students at lunchtime.
Exploring ports also has its share of challenges as she discovered in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“At first, I was kind of scared for the first port,” she admits. “There were huge curbs and steps everywhere and the escalator down to St. Petersburg's Metro was the biggest escalator I’d ever seen.”
With the help and company of her SAS friend, Kathy Nguyen, Stephanie conquered Russia and has since found getting around no different than traveling through any U.S. city.
Kathy, a student at UC Santa Barbara, is one of many students, lifelong learners, staff and faculty members influenced by Stephanie. “We’re like a fun mother-daughter duo,” Kathy says of their relationship. “She takes care of me but she’s very funny at the same time.”
Stephanie care for others extends beyond the shipboard community. Volunteering has helped Stephanie remain positive, throughout her life. On the voyage, she’s participated in several service visits, including the SAS visit to Dollerup, Germany, where she helped paint a mural and build a soccer goal for the children. She also visited a peace village outside Hamburg for handicapped child refugees whose injuries required medical attention that their home countries couldn’t provide.
“I can relate to kids in foster homes so well—being separated from their families and not knowing if their families are doing OK,” she says. “I like helping people because people helped me. If I can help one person a day or change something, then I’m doing good.”
Never one to turn down a new friend, Stephanie spends much of her port time interacting with locals. In Ireland, she attended open-mic poetry, visited countless museum on Dublin’s cultural night, and cheered with Irish revelers during the Gaelic Football finals. Stephanie doesn’t deny that she’s had a more challenging life than others, but she’s learned to hug the turns and keep a smile. “Life is not a straight passage,” she says. “It’s full of detours. Take the detours, take the obstacles, and experience life.”